A large city at night, with colorful lights illuminating the cityscape. Photo by Wolfram from Pexels under Pexels license.

From Hollywood actors to community activists and literary writers, Asian Americans have been gaining increasing visibility on public platforms. However, given that Asian Americans come from over 20 ethnic and national groups, there is variety and diversity in history, language, culture, and experience that the umbrella term “Asian American” cannot encompass. Over time, in fact, Asian Americans have been lumped into a monolithic culture and stereotypes typically associated with East Asians, erasing the diversity that is a crucial part of Asian America. 

What does it mean to be “Asian American” in the United States? How are Asian Americans defying, redefining, and embracing this ambiguous and monolithic label? 

Immigration and Asian Americans

Asian Americans and their immigration to the United States have always been an important part of the history of the United States. Ethnic groups like Chinese and Japanese Americans have been around since the gold rush and sugarcane fields of Hawaii respectively. Other groups, especially Southeast Asian refugees, came to the United States as a result of colonialism and war. It is important to acknowledge how these different histories compose and have shaped Asian American identities, cultures, and communities.

  • Lee, Erika. 2015. “A Part and Apart: Asian American and Immigration History.” Journal of American Ethnic History 34(4):28–42. 
  • Lee, Erika. 2016. The Making of Asian America: A History. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.


Panethnicity refers to any collective identity built across ethnic boundaries and differences (Okamoto and Mora 2014). For Asian Americans, panethnicity was created as a political identity for activism and solidarity among Asian-origin peoples in the face of a deeply racialized United States. In more recent decades, “Asian American” has become an identity for Asian Americans to share in panethnic cultural histories, activities, and media. However, it has also become an identity forced upon Asian-origin peoples, where entities like the government group all Asian-origin ethnicities under this broad umbrella term to distinguish them from both White people and other people of color.

  • Lee, Jess. 2019. “Many dimensions of Asian American pan‐ethnicity.” Sociology Compass 13(12). 
  • Nakano, Dana Y. 2013. “An interlocking panethnicity: The negotiation of multiple identities among Asian American social movement leaders.” Sociological Perspectives 56(4):569-595.
  • Okamoto, Dina G. 2014. Redefining race: Asian American panethnicity and shifting ethnic boundaries. New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation.
  • Okamoto, Dina, and G. Cristina Mora. 2014. “Panethnicity.” Annual Review of Sociology 40:219-239.Espiritu, Yen Le. 1992. Asian American panethnicity: Bridging institutions and identities. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

The Monolithic “Asian American” – Commonalities and Variations

In recent decades, “Asian American” as a panethnic category has also become a point of contention for people who are categorized and racialized as such. Many ethnic groups, like South Asian ethnic groups, feel unrepresented in an umbrella category that seems to predominantly reflect East Asian culture, values, experiences, and socio-cultural status. An example of this is the “model minority” stereotype, which upholds Asian Americans as hard-working and high achieving in comparison to other racial minority groups, and yet still inferior and a threat to White people (Kim 1999). However, the model minority is often in reference to East Asians (although depending on the context this can also include Asian Indians and Vietnamese), ignoring the disparities many Asian Americans like South and Southeast Asians experience.

As a result, there have been calls to disaggregate, or break down, Asian Americans by ethnic groups because of how this monolithic racial label camouflages the vast differences and inequities between Asian American groups. Examples include the income gaps between groups like Chinese Americans and Nepalese Americans, and even within ethnic groups, like Chinese Americans, there are vastly different and unequal experiences. 

  • Kibria, Nadia. 1998. “The contested meanings of ‘Asian American’: Racial dilemmas in the contemporary US.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 21(5), 939-958.
  • Lee, Jennifer, and Karthick Ramakrishnan. 2020. “Who counts as Asian.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 43(10):1733-1756.
  • Tsuda, Takeyuki. 2022. “I Don’t Feel Very Asian American”: Why Aren’t Japanese Americans More Panethnic?” Sociological Inquiry 92: 919-942. 
  • Yamashita, Liann. 2022. ““I just couldn’t relate to that Asian American narrative”: How Southeast Asian Americans reconsider panethnicity.” Sociology of Race and Ethnicity 8(2):250-266

Xenophobia and Anti-Asian Racism

Asian Americans continue to face xenophobic sentiments in a country where, no matter who is included or how long their family has been in the US, they are treated as foreigners (Tuan 1998). Even when praised as “model minorities” who “made it” compared to other minority groups, this valorized position can quickly crumble beneath them. The COVID-19 pandemic and the rise of anti-Asian hate that followed is an example of Asian Americans’ tenuous position in the racialized hierarchy of the United States. 

  • Kim, Claire Jean. 1999. “The Racial Triangulation of Asian Americans.” Politics & Society 27(1):105-138. 
  • Kim, Nadia. 2007. “Asian Americans’ experiences of “race” and racism.” In Handbooks of the Sociology of Racial and Ethnic Relations, pp. 131-144. Boston, MA: Springer US.
  • Tessler, Hannah, Meera Choi, and Grace Kao. 2020. “The anxiety of being Asian American: Hate crimes and negative biases during the COVID-19 pandemic.” American Journal of Criminal Justice 45:636-646.
  • Tuan, Mia. 1998. Forever Foreigners or Honorary Whites? The Asian Ethnic Experience Today. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press. 

A sheet with two holes cut in for eye holes to resemble a ghost, sitting (or floating?) on a bed. Photo by Ryan Miguel Capili under Pexels license.

It’s a dark and stormy night, and the wind is howling as the trees tap, tap, tap along your window. Out of the night comes an unearthly noise, and an eerie feeling takes over you as the room becomes cold. Your mind begins to race as you feel a presence close by. It must be all in your head…mustn’t it?

Whether you believe in ghosts or the things that go bump in the night, the supernatural has proved to be a prevailing source of intrigue for the world and sociologists. We may not be able to prove the existence of the supernatural, but we can certainly look into the factors that shape and guide our experiences. 

Cultic Milieu

Cultic or paranormal beliefs and experiences are both wide-ranging (including unorthodox science, magic, witchcraft, astrology, mysticism, healing practices, the occult, and more) and persistent across time. 

These beliefs are unified by the fact that they are typically viewed as deviant to the dominant culture, particularly traditional religion and mainstream science. This stimulates a tolerance for other belief systems and a sense of support, as believers in the cultic or paranormal share an experience of having to justify their beliefs to mainstream society. 

Colin Campbell argues that this cultic milieu is, “an underground region where true seekers test hidden, forgotten, and forbidden knowledge.”

Supernatural Skepticism

Some scholars have also explored the process of how people come to develop cultic or paranormal beliefs. When patterns of strange and uncanny events occur, people often experience layers of doubt before concluding they have experienced a ghostly encounter. The will to believe battles against a desire to remain skeptical, especially in a highly rationalized, materialistic world. 

“Because a ghost seemingly defies rationality, the person who believes risks his or her credibility and stigmatization.”

Studying practitioners of ritual magic in London in 1983, Tanya Marie Luhrmann questioned why users practiced magic when – to the eye of the outside observer – it did not work. Luhrmann found that individuals engaged in unintentional interpretive drift (a slow shift in how someone interprets events, what events they find significant, and what patterns they notice). Over time, they began to interpret events as a result of their magical practice. For Lurhman, such beliefs and practices are not so much exceptions to the modern quest for instrumental, scientific knowledge but a direct reaction to its limitations and shortcomings. 


Some scholars focus on the social functions of ghostly hauntings. Hauntings may draw attention to loss (either of life or of opportunity) or reveal repressed or unresolved memories of individuals or communities (particularly memories of social violence). Ghosts can represent our empowered hopes, fears, and values. Experiences with ghosts may spur action, and–whether they truly exist or not–have real effects on those who believe in them. 

Gender and Race Belief Differences

Sociology has also found that social factors like race, education, and gender can influence someone’s perspective on the paranormal and supernatural, as one survey of American fears found. Women have been found to have a higher belief in things like ghosts, zombies, and supernatural powers while men are more likely to believe in things like bigfoot or extraterrestrials. The results suggest a difference in the material quality of the creature and its relation to scientific inquiry. 

Black people were found to have higher beliefs in alien life and ghost encounters while Asian Americans had the largest fear of zombies. White people were more likely to believe in UFOs and psychic healing. The cultural significance of religion or spirituality for race may be an influencing factor in the findings. The level of education also impacts someone’s beliefs. Those with a bachelor’s degree or higher were less likely to believe in aliens, bigfoot, ghost encounters/hauntings, and Atlantis. However, other supernatural beliefs – such as supernatural human abilities and zombies – were not impacted by education. 

The supernatural and paranormal have managed to intrigue the public for centuries and sociologists are no different. Why and how people engage with the spooky aspects of life can often tell us more about the social world than we’d first think. “To study social life one must confront the ghostly aspects of it.”Avery Gordon

A police officer in uniform wearing a walkie-talkie and a square body-camera by Sanderflight. Image from Wikipedia Commons is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International.

The public is no stranger to “body-cams”. Images and videos from police body cameras are now a frequent feature in the media as a direct source of “what really happened” during contentious interactions between police and the public. But what have we learned from sociological research about body-cams? Who are they “for”?


Law enforcement agencies have used recording technologies like dash-cams for years, but the rise of cell phone recordings and public demands for police accountability dramatically expanded the use of body-cams across the US. Body-cams, or cameras attached to the officer’s uniform, vary in the quality of video produced, the requirements regarding when to turn on the camera, and how the recordings are handled and by whom.

Research on Body-Cams

Police departments began implementing body-cams in the early 2010s. By 2015, survey showed that 19% of police departments were using body-cams in the United States. One year later in 2016, a different survey reported 47% of police departments were using body-cams – suggesting exponential growth in the use of body-cams during the mid 2010’s. As of 2023, the use of body-cams is likely higher, and many states have since ratified statewide body-cam requirements to different extents for their law enforcement.

Research has shown that officers’ perceptions of body-cams have been largely positive since they can aid and assist with arrests and investigations, and can help address excessive use of force complaints (allegations when a police officer uses more physical force than needed).


Research on arrests and the use of body-cams shows promise. Studies have found that when body-cams are used, officers made fewer arrests, but made more citations (less serious charges than arrests). Researchers suggest that the reason for fewer arrests may be the result of both officers and citizens adjusting their behavior because they are on camera and being recorded. This decreased rate of arrest decreases the burden on police and the criminal legal justice system and can reduce harm to the broader community.

Excessive Use of Force

The results are more mixed regarding excessive use of force: some research shows a decrease in excessive force after the implementation of body-cams and some studies show no difference. These mixed findings may be tied to whether officers have discretion, or choice, to activate their cameras. In studies that found no effect on excessive use of force, officers had high discretion and could choose when (or when not) to activate their body-cams. In short, if officers have the discretion to turn their body-cams on or off, they may be more likely to use excessive force than when they are required to turn on their body-cams during an interaction.


For formal complaints made by community members, officers who used body-cams had fewer reported complaints against them than those who did not use body-cams. Several studies have shown a marked decline in complaints after body cams are implemented, with one reporting a 90% reduction in complaints against police officers. Such complaints seem to decrease even when the body-cam was not turned on but still physically visible on the officer. It appears that “being on camera” is again impacting the behavior of both officers and community members.

Future of Body-Cams

Across the board, there are fewer and fewer outright opponents of body-cams. Public discussion now centers around the accessibility of unedited recordings, limited officer discretion of when to activate the body-cam, the privacy of bystanders to crimes, and the development of new laws regulating body-cam use. At the societal level, body-cams are generally considered an asset and a means to help both police and community members stay accountable and safe.